Fuzhou cork carvings are considered one of Fuzhou’s three treasures along with bodiless lacquer ware and Shoushan stone carvings.The craftsman’s combination of talented carving skills and traditional painting techniques make it a unique art form applauded by the art world.
Cork carvings were born and took shape in the beginning of Republic of China period. The art of cork carving was started in a process very similar to that in which Issaic Newton stumbled on the Law of Gravity by observing a falling apple. Mr. Wu Qiqi, known as the “father of cork carving art”, created some lovely postcards by carving away the cypress wood from the old fashioned life buoy. These creations came about in the year of 1910 while Mr. Wu was a student in a local art school.In 1915 (or 1913, the exact date is unknown), landscape pictures were first brought to China from Germany. The new art form was introduced to the art school that Wu studied at. He created the first of what’s called ‘cork carving’ by combining western techniques in landscape pictures with classical Chinese aesthetics. He, together with a few other young craftsmen, opened a cork workshop near what’s now the Daming food street, and started to claim an increasing market popularity based on the beautiful cork carving artwork produced from his workshop.
Wu’s students continue to create masterpieces influenced by his teachings and commitment to the art of cork carving. The 1930’s was a period when cork carving skills took a leap from postcards to a variety of different techniques such as base-relief carving, three-dimensional sculpting and open work carving. So cork carvings jumped off the wall to set feet on the desk of scholar’s study, or living room in delicate glass casings. Cork carvings maintained a moderate popularity and market reception during the decades that followed. And a cohort of carving artists developed nearly consummate charm in their works, which set the parameters for the launch of the industry later.
Fuzhou in the 1980’s saw a soar both in the size of cork-carving craftsmen and in the financial gains thereof. The craftsmen population engaged in the industry rose from under 100 to a stunning height of 15,000, and the revenues reached a zenith of astronomical numbers compared to any other decade. Subjects were expanded, markets were developed, and awards were won during the golden time of Cork Carving industry.
But alas, times change! A sudden blow hit the export market for cork carving industry. In 1990, the volumn for export took a plummate from 5 million rmb to merely 0.2 million yuan! What added insult to injury was an influx of massive under-standard products, which nearly served as a recipe for a disaster. In mid-1990’s, the brutal reforms on state-owned enterprises swept over the once-boom cork carving industry, forcing massive downsize of craftsmen staff, squeezing non-performing factories out of market. Even more than the closure of factories, the stark lack of younger craftsmen is now a bigger challenge. At present, the size of full time cork carving artists is less than 100, while young men and women count under 10. This lack is attributable to the low wages for the entry-level work, and lengthy brooding period to become a ‘skilled’ craftsman.
Fortunately, some entrepreneurs in Fuzhou are putting out effort to preserve the cork carving industry and keep it alive for future generations. Ms. Shi Chunqing is the spearheader amongst them. Back in 2010, this amazing woman started Fuzhou Crafts and Arts Company – a company that only deals in traditional Fuzhou artwork. She also opened a shop for sales and exhibition of those artistic products, displaying a wide array of cork sculptures, oil-paper umbrellas and Shou Shan stones. Over the past three years, Ms. Shi has prided in the fact that her business has brought 30 masters back to employment, including the son of Wu Qiqi – the legend in cork painting. However, it’s still embarrassing for Shi to admit that she has to subsidize cork-carving with revenues from other business of hers, like jewellry. Shi pointed it to the lack of consciousness of the local gem from Fuzhounese themselves. “Cork paintings used to be a standard item listed as dowry gifts. But now, the dowry value inflated multiple times and nobody cares about cork paintings any longer.’
According, underfunded aid and lack of effective marketing efforts are also to blame. ‘They set aside a fund of 30,000 rmb to save the art, but it’s apparently far from enough. The worse is, even for a paltry help like that, you have to jump through a bunch of hoops to get it.’